Storm Born Chapter Twenty

 

I became merely mortal the next morning, the last lingering memories of magic recalled only in theory, not in feeling. I wanted to try to explain the dream-memory to Kiyo, how I'd at last recalled what happened between Storm King and me before Roland killed him. But I didn't know how to explain it. I barely understood magic at all and found recapturing that terrifying yet glorious feeling nearly impossible.

Besides, I had other things to worry about today. It was Beltane Eve.

I found myself busy almost from the crack of dawn. Beltane - or May Day - ushers in the return of life to the year; many western European cultures consider it a peak day for fertility and conception. Apparently many Otherworldly creatures do too. Like Halloween - or Samhain - the gates between the worlds open, facilitating passage between humans and the Otherworldly alike. Midnight on May 1 was the ultimate opening, but the passages steadily increased throughout the day on April 30.

Since my presence at Dorian's party tonight was common knowledge, many must have decided to get in their chance before I left the human world. Fortunately, most of these same gentry and assorted creatures were those who could not have passed through under normal circumstances. This meant they were considerably weaker and hence easier to banish or destroy. Unfortunately, when they came in a steady stream, they also became a huge and exhausting annoyance.

I got home around dinnertime, not long before I was supposed to show up in the Otherworld. Hastily, I shed my sweaty clothes and took the world's fastest shower. Afterward, I managed a makeup job rivaling the last one, but it cost me time. With minutes ticking away, I threw on the dress Lara had procured and ran a quick brush through my damp hair. There was nothing else to be done with it. I threw a little mousse into it to avoid frizz, and then I was off to the desert.

Dorian had wisely put my Slinky anchor in a more secure place than a flimsy table. I appeared in a small chamber where a servant had awaited my arrival. He gave me a polite bow and then took me straight to Dorian's room. Inside it, I found pandemonium.

Male and female servants ran in and out, doing God only knew what. Dorian stood in front of a giant mirror, checking himself out in an azure blue robe. A stout man hovered nearby with about a dozen other robes weighing down his arm. It was the same man, I realized, whose place I'd taken in croquet.

"Eugenie Markham," announced my escort.

Dorian gave me half a glance. "Lady Markham, so nice to - sweet gods. She's wearing beige."

I looked down. Lara had found me a clingy silk dress in a shade she termed "champagne": a warm ivory tinged with gold. I wouldn't have thought the color worked for me, but she apparently knew me better than I did. The strapless bodice was gathered and decorated with a bit of iridescent beading meant to imitate buttons down the middle. From the waist down, the skirt cascaded in smooth, shining folds. It fit snugly against my silhouette, flaring slightly only when it hit my ankles.

"It's 'champagne,'" I corrected. "And what's wrong with it?"

"Nothing. It's lovely." He turned back frantically to his valet. "It's not going to match any of these, Muran. What else do we have?"

Muran bit his lip. "There's the green velvet, your majesty. Its trim has that shade in it. Paired with an ivory shirt, it would look quite stunning."

Dorian made a face. "Silk or satin would be better. Grab it anyway, and see if there's anything else we're missing. Oh, and send someone to do Lady Markham's hair."

"What's wrong with my hair?"

"Nothing, were you sprawled in my bed after a night of passion." A young woman hurried forward, and he jerked his head in my direction. "See to her, Nia."

Nia, a tiny thing with olive skin, curtsied to me and led me to the parlor where Dorian and I had first chatted. I couldn't see what she did, but her fingers worked as deftly and intricately in my hair as Dorian did when tying the cords around me. I'd only once had my hair done by a stylist, and it had been for a wedding in which a cruel friend had required me to wear orange taffeta. The event still woke me with nightmares.

A slight tingle occasionally brushed my skin as Nia worked, and I realized she used magic in the styling. I supposed it was handier than a curling iron, but geez. What a disappointment to discover you had the magical equivalent of cosmetology when other gentry got healing and the ability to tear buildings apart.

"There you are, my lady."

She took me to a mirror, nervously assessing my reaction. Scattered braids ran toward the back of my head where the rest of my hair had been gathered up into a high ponytail. She'd smoothed and curled most of that hanging hair, but a few tiny braids hung in it here and there. Long, smooth locks framed my face, curled slightly at their ends. Violets and dark ivory sweetheart roses adorned some of the braids.

"Wow," I said.

Nia wrung her hands. "My lady likes?"

"Very much."

She beamed. With her petite frame and smooth face, she looked about sixteen but could probably actually boast a century. "I didn't know how humans wore it."

I smiled and gave her arm a small pat. "It's wonderful."

She looked ready to swoon with joy, and I recalled how eagerly Dorian's staff always jumped to obey his commands. Was I inspiring that kind of loyalty? Or fear?

Dorian swept into the room then, resplendent in a forest green robe made of silk. The edging contained an intricate pattern of ivory, russet, and gold, set off by the black slacks and ivory shirt underneath.

"Much better," he said, taking my hand. "Come, we're late."

Muran and a few others followed as we headed for the throne room. Dorian didn't actually run, but an urgency underscored his movement.

"Why the rush?" I asked. "Don't they wait on your every pleasure?"

"Certainly. But I have to be in there before the other monarchs arrive, or we'll create a complication of etiquette. Everyone will bow when we enter, but the other monarchs don't have to. If they're in there before me, it'll be awkward."

"What do you mean by 'bow'? Does that mean - "

A herald hurled open the double doors and announced in a booming voice: "His royal majesty, King Dorian of the House of Arkady, caller of Earth, protector of the Oak Land, blessed of the gods."

"Whoa," I breathed. Dorian squeezed my hand.

" - with Eugenie Markham, called Odile Dark Swan, daughter of Tirigan the Storm King."

I didn't think I'd ever get used to being titled, but my astonishment over that faded compared to what happened next. Everyone in the room turned toward us and fell to their knees, heads bowed. Dead silence followed. Slowly, almost in a glide step, we walked down the center aisle, and I tried to look straight ahead and not at the sea of obeisance.

Civilizations rose and fell in the time it took us to reach the throne. When we did, Dorian turned us around to face the assembly and made a small, nondescript gesture. I don't know how the others saw it with their heads so low, but they all rose and the drone of life and music promptly returned. People moved again, mingling and laughing. Servants scurried to and fro with drinks and trays. It could have been any human party, save for the occasional troll and wraith sipping wine. The men dressed in variations of the Renaissance look Dorian seemed to favor, but the women's gowns ran the gamut of bell sleeves and velvet to Grecian wraps and gauze.

"And now, my dear, we must part ways."

I jerked my gaze away from the assembled throng. "What are you talking about?"

He waved his hand. "These are the greatest nobles in my kingdom, not to mention the other kingdoms. I must mingle, listen to their simpering, act like I care. You know how it is."

Panic seized me as I looked back at all those gentry faces. "Why can't I go with you? I mean, we coordinate and everything."

"Because if I keep you on my arm all night, I'll look possessive and insecure. Leaving you on your own shows I have absolute confidence that you'll leave with me tonight, regardless of other solicitations."

"Oh, my God...I'm going to be hit on all night."

He laughed. "Don't worry, that's all they'll do - unless you wish otherwise. Anyone who touches you against your will would incur the wrath of my entire guard, not to mention most of the guests. It would be a shocking insult."

"And yet I could apparently go off with anyone if I wanted to."

"Of course. You're free to choose as you like."

"Wouldn't that be an insult to your manhood or something?"

"A bit. But then I'd just take five or so women to my bed and redeem myself fairly quickly."

"Whoa. I feel like I'll be holding you back."

"Don't worry. I'll recover once you're gone tomorrow."

I swallowed and looked around, the jokes unable to allay my anxiety. "I don't even know anybody."

He turned me to him and gave me a soft kiss on the lips. I had to consciously work to keep my body relaxed. It was still a shock each time he did that.

"You'll just have to meet them, then," he said.

He strolled off toward the first group of people he saw, and I heard a flurry of exuberant greetings at his approach. Feeling stupid and awkward, I wondered where I should go and whom I should talk to. I didn't really do big parties. Too much of my time was spent in solitude to really know how to interact in a group like this. That wasn't even taking into account that these were all Otherworldly residents. Two of my deepest phobias combined into one long evening.

"Wine?" asked a servant who had suddenly appeared at my side.

"Yes, please."

I seized one of the goblets from her proffered tray and took a hasty gulp of a sweet, fruity red. Picking a direction at random, I took five steps and was immediately intercepted by a tall gentry in scarlet velvet. He had black hair and a neatly trimmed beard.

"Lady Markham," he oozed, taking my free hand and kissing it. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last. I am Marcus, lord of Danzia in the Rowan Land."

"Hi," I said, knowing I would never again remember his name once he left.

He kept holding my hand and let his eyes run over me from head to toe. I suddenly wished the dress wasn't so tight or the neckline so low.

"I must say," he murmured, "I'd heard reports of your beauty, but they are paltry things compared to the reality."

"Thanks."

I tried to take back my hand, but he held on to it.

"My family's nobility extends all the way back to the migration to this world. We are renowned for our fierce warriors. Magic runs strong in our blood, usually calling to one of the elements. My own inclinations run toward control of the air."

As if to emphasize the point, I suddenly felt the slightest of breezes blow against my arms.

"My heirs will inherit a vast estate. My house has always served in an advisory capacity to royalty. Even now, I am a close personal friend of Katrice, the Rowan Queen. She is a powerful ally."

I realized then he was laying out his pedigree for me, quickly and efficiently, much as a breeder might show off a prize dog's papers. I opened my mouth, ready to tell him I wasn't interested, but he just kept going.

"Some men would fear having a warrior consort. They would seek to control you and seize the power for their own uses." He inclined his head ever so suggestively toward where Dorian conversed with a tall, dark-skinned woman. "Not me. I would not use you to further my own ends. You would rule by my side as an equal, sharing in the guidance of our children."

Yikes. This wasn't even our first date. I managed to break my hand free of his. "Thank you, but this is all kind of sudden. It's been really great talking to you, though."

Anxiousness flooded his face. "But I haven't even told you about my famed reputation as a lover - "

"I've got to be somewhere right now. Sorry."

I took two steps back, turned, and practically ran into another man. Beyond him, a few others attempted to linger inconspicuously. In fact this one, I realized, had simply been waiting for me to reject Marcus. He gave me a dazzling smile.

"Lady Markham, it's a pleasure to meet you at last...."

I sort of lost track of time after that. I never got much farther than that spot and my wine remained forgotten and undrunk. Listening politely to each guy's sales pitch, I amused myself by considering just how much I could push the limits of the hospitality rule before getting in trouble with Dorian. Yet, no matter how annoying each guy got, I squashed my rebellious instincts and kept to good behavior.

After a couple hours, I caught sight of Shaya, the black-haired woman who had captured me that first night. She walked alone through the room. Brushing off my current suitor, I broke free of the next contender and hurried over to her.

"Hey, Shaya, how's it going?"

She looked at me in astonishment, not surprising considering I hadn't spoken to her since my capture. Her gown was midnight blue velvet with a full skirt, tight sleeves, and a high collar. I didn't entirely understand her whole background, but apparently she was the younger daughter of some noble and had ended up in a military career as part of Dorian's guard.

"Lady Markham," she returned. Mild curiosity showed on her face. "What can I do for you?"

"Oh, nothing. Just thought we'd...you know, talk."

One delicate eyebrow rose. She glanced over at the eager throng of men and turned back to me with a half-smile. "It seems like you have plenty of guests to talk to."

"Please," I whispered. "I know we aren't friends, but just talk to me like we are. Just for a minute. I can't stand it. I need a break. I'm so tired of hearing about how big each guy's estate is...not to mention other things."

She laughed, the sound rich and sweet. Linking her arm through mine, she led me idly around, like we were indeed friends.

"I've heard stories about the things you've faced down. And yet, in the end, it's a group of desperate nobles who undo you."

She allowed me a few minutes' solitude, and we talked about trivial things. As we did, I realized something: She was really funny. And intelligent. And...nice. I'd dismissed her upon our first meeting as a prissy gentry bitch, my attitude fueled partially by my capture and partially by the antagonism at dinner. But here she was, hanging out with me like any other person would, her comments both witty and astute.

"I have to go. Rurik's looking for me," she said at last, letting go of me. She smiled again, amused and compassionate. "Put up with them a little longer. They're nothing more than a nuisance."

I shook my head. "They're so blunt and straightforward. It's strange." Kiyo and I had once mocked the pretenses in dating, but right now, a little less honesty had its appeal.

"Then be blunt back. If you're too nice, they'll think they have a chance and will try another time. Most now consider you a high-ranking noble; arrogance is expected. They won't think you're rude."

I thanked her and watched her leave, just as a hand tapped my shoulder. I sighed. Time to face the wolves again.

Or fox, as it turned out.

"Hey," I said. "Nice threads."

Kiyo stood before me in a beautifully tailored tux, its clean black and white lines standing out in sharp contrast beside the flowing colors of the other men.

"I wore it for you. Figured you might like a change from velvet and silk. And as for you..." His smoky eyes did a quick assessment of me. "I've been hearing a lot of guys drool over your dress tonight."

"You've been here for a while? And didn't come talk to me?"

He grinned. "You looked pretty busy."

"Well, stay with me now. Maybe they'll leave me alone if they think I'm occupied with someone."

We found a two-seated bench against a wall, padded with brocade-covered cushions. I sighed and leaned my head against his shoulder. He put an arm around me.

"I wish I was out patrolling like I usually do tonight. Fighting spirits and whatnot isn't half as exhausting as this."

"And so Tucson goes undefended, eh?"

"Roland's on it, much to my mother's dismay. I just hope I've drawn a lot of the action here instead of back there."

We sat quietly for a while, watching the party. It reminded me of the bar. Alone but not alone. Like any other party, people were getting more drunk as the night progressed. That unabashed sexual contact popped up more and more frequently, and a number of people danced wherever they found room. They moved in graceful strides, reminiscent of ballroom styles I knew.

"I've been thinking...about last night."

I looked up at him. "Yeah. I've thought about that a few times myself."

"You were...I don't know. I've never seen you like that. Not that we've done it all that much, but...wow. You marked me up pretty good."

"Is that a bad thing?"

He smiled. "No. I don't think so." His fingers brushed my chin and tipped my face up. "But what was going on? How'd a nightmare bring that on?"

I turned my face away. "It wasn't exactly a nightmare."

"What, then?"

"Just a dream...or a memory. It was about my father. And magic."

"What happened?"

"I...well, it's hard to explain."

"Eugenie - "

I kept my demeanor light and playful. "Forget about it. For tonight at least, okay? It isn't the right time. We can talk later."

He hesitated, then nodded. I moved my face closer, and he brushed his lips against my forehead, down to my cheek. I closed my eyes and sighed, luxuriating as his lips moved delicately down the side of my neck. We turned toward each other, our mouths drawn by some unseen force. And as we kissed, I forgot all about the crazy propositions tonight. There was only this. Me and Kiyo.

"No groping," I warned, seeing his hand slyly move toward forbidden areas. "I don't care how many other people are doing it. Or how much attention we don't draw to it."

"Then let's go somewhere private," he murmured, trailing kisses along my shoulder.

"I can't. You know I have to leave with Dorian. Nothing's going to happen," I added, seeing him open his mouth. "It's just for appearances. We can get together tomorrow."

He considered and nodded. "All right. But I'm giving you a good sendoff tonight."

He moved back, and we continued our kissing for a bit until a voice said, "The gods know I've seen some strange things in my life, but never did I expect to find a kitsune trying to make himself ruler over all of us."

We looked up in surprise. I hadn't expected another suitor while clearly busy with Kiyo.

Aeson stood there.

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